Highly Protected Marine Areas Scheme Scrapped

The Scottish Government has shelved its plans to create Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs). The scheme was deeply unpopular in island and coastal communities. It led to a huge backlash across the political spectrum from those communities and from the fishing industry.

head and shoulders profile picture of Mairi McAllan

Mairi McAllan, the Net Zero Cabinet Secretary in the Scottish Government told MSPS in the Scottish Parliament “while we remain firmly committed to the outcome of enhanced marine protection, the proposal as consulted on will not be progressed.”

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said:

“We welcome that the Scottish Government appears to have listened to businesses and communities and recognised that its policy on Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) covering at least 10% of our seas is flawed and should be scrapped.

“Ministers will now need to re-assure people that they are not simply intent on introducing the same policy by the back door. The seafood sector has set out a clear pathway on how we can work with the government to strike the right balance between nature conservation and sustainable use, and the test for government now is to deliver upon that.”

Also welcoming the announcement, Tavish Scott, chief executive of Salmon Scotland said:

“HPMAs united coastal communities and MSPs in total opposition, as they posed a risk of banning all human activity from vast swathes of Scotland’s coastline.

“We welcome the Scottish Government’s confirmation that HPMAs, as currently conceived, will be scrapped.

“This decision comes as a massive relief to salmon farmers and others who were concerned about the impact on their jobs. I am grateful to all the MSPs who have spoken up in support of our sector during these difficult months and to those who signed our petition outside Holyrood a fortnight ago.

“We commit to working with the Scottish Government to develop workable proposals that safeguard both livelihoods and the marine environment on which they rely.”

Scotland already has a Marine Protected Area network which covers approximately 37% of Scotland’s seas. It is supported by the fishing industry and the communities it affects.

The responses to the Scottish Government’s consultation on HPMAs have not yet been published but with the abandonment of the scheme, they must have been overwhelmingly negative.

Orkney Constituency MSP Liam McArthur, LibDem commented:

“The Scottish Government’s plan to impose HPMAs in 10% of Scottish waters by 2026 was arbitrary and counter-productive. The backlash from island and coastal communities around the country was immediate and unambiguous.

“I welcome the fact that the Minister has agreed to go back to the drawing board, though she needs to accept that the uncertainty caused by her proposals have already come at a cost in terms of lost confidence and investment.

“Fishers know better than anyone about the need to protect our marine environment and enhance biodiversity. However, the government needs to look to properly resource the monitoring and management of the existing MPA network, rather than simply imposing additional restrictions before any evidence has been gathered.

“It is essential too that any plans going forward are developed in collaboration with stakeholders and the communities most directly affected. The Minister offered an assurance that this would now happen. She now must deliver on that commitment.”

MSPs from Opposition parties and those in the SNP who had also opposed the scheme, were pleased that HPMAs as originally envisaged would not be going ahead and that there will be much more engagement with the communities involved.

Mairi McAllan said:

“We are in the midst of a nature and climate crisis and we must be prepared to take action commensurate with the scale of that challenge.

“Failure to safeguard and improve the resilience of Scotland’s marine ecosystems to a changing climate risks the very basis on which our marine industries and coastal communities are built.

“We chose to consult as early and widely as possible on the principles of HPMAs, with no pre-determined sites. It has always been, and continues to be, this government’s plan to work cooperatively with communities to identify how and where to enhance marine protection in a way that minimises impact and maximises opportunity.

“I will outline more on our next steps after the summer recess, but I hope that it is clear that I am determined to protect our oceans in a way that is fair, and to find a way forward that ensures our seas remain a source of prosperity for the nation, especially in our remote, coastal and island communities.”

What happens Next?

Labour Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant said that the Scottish Government should “now go back to the drawing board, work collegiately with coastal communities on effecting plans to protect our seas.”

The Cabinet Secretary confirmed that consultation on inshore measures will take place in 2024. Mairi Gougeon, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands, will consult on the potential closure of sand eel fisheries in Scottish waters.

Scottish Government representatives will have to work hard to win back the trust of island and coastal communities. The Communities Inshore Fisheries Alliance (CIFA) which was set up in 2017 to support Scotland’s Inshore Fisheries and communities issued a statement laced with caution about the shelving of the HPMA scheme as first envisaged.

“We hope this represents a meaningful opportunity to engage with inshore fishing communities in moving forward. A key objective for our members will be to play an active part in evaluating the extensive fisheries and marine management policies which are already in place, both in scientific and socio-economic terms. We must be sure the measures implemented currently represent the correct approaches to marine and fisheries management. “

CIFA committed its members to work with the Scottish Government but added this note of warning:

“We will engage closely to ensure that whilst HPMAs by 2026 are no longer a policy of choice, other equally concerning approaches are not adopted in the place of HPMAs.

“Inshore fishing communities will be vigilant in continuing to protect their sustainable communities, culture and livelihoods. We hope that we can work with our politicians to achieve this goal.

“We are sure lessons can be learned by all stakeholders, and that we can step forward positively with sincere listening, learning and goodwill.”

a set of creels on the shoreline
Image credit Bell

Fiona Grahame

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